I am currently working multiple plein air oil-painting projects towards completion. These are small paintings. Even so, a plein air painting might typically take me three evenings, each of several hours, returning to the same spot three times, or more. Still, I might be permitted to call many of these paintings “alla prima” (also called Direct Painting or Wet on Wet… wet oil paints are applied over “wet” layers of paint).
To keep the oil paints wet between painting sessions I keep the wet painting in the freezer. Oil paint does not, technically, “dry”. Rather it cures with time, and freezing temperatures slows this process to a crawl, but does not hurt the painting at all.
As I have grown older and slowed down, some plein air paintings are started one summer and then completed the next season. I can’t keep them in the freezer that long, I don’t have the freezer space. So these could not be called “alla prima”. I write about one such painting in this article called “Entropy and Oil Painting“.
There was a time when I could complete 90% of a small plein air oil painting in one marathon session, in mid summer, Alaska. Ah youth! I could handle chilly breezes back then and stay on my feet. But I love being out there painting, it inspires me. So even though I complete fewer paintings every year, I can’t quite bring myself to switch to primarily studio work from photographs. Of course I have done many successful studio paintings. Never say never.
I am the oldest of 4 children. My brother was a gifted and accomplished dancer in New York City (Juilliard School). He died tragically at a young age. My dad was an cabinet maker and founded Northwest Millwork serving The Pacific Northwest and Hawaii. He did many projects in Alaska, including the beautiful lobby of natural wood in the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska. Mom was trained in millinery and had many fine hats in her closet. When ‘womens’ hats’ went the way of the old department stores, she was just Mom filled with wisdom and patience. Like myself, my two sisters married Alaska fishermen and live in Alaska to this day.
Although my name is Devita Writer, I sign my work Devita Stipek-Writer in honor of my parents and immensely talented brother Daryl.
My great grandfather settled in Nome during the gold rush. My grandfather moved to Seattle as a young man. I developed a serious affinity for painting at an early age, and it was my career of choice after high school. In 1964, while I was attending art school at Cornish, my grandmother and I traveled to Alaska on the inaugural run of the State Ferry Matanuska to attend a friend’s wedding in Ketchikan. It was there that I met my soon to be husband, Alaska fisherman David Kennedy.
As I, both of my sisters married Alaska commercial fishermen and still live in Alaska, so I guess Alaska, and a deep kinship with the sea, is in our blood.
Dave and I raised our family on the fishing boat, in fish camps and fishing towns from Ketchikan to Kodiak. Eventually we settled in the tiny outer coast fishing village of Elfin Cove where I ran the fuel dock and general store while Dave fished. I continued to draw and paint during this time.
Dave disappeared at sea with his fishing boat a week before Christmas 1979. I moved my family to Juneau, Alaska. Out of love and necessity, I turned to making art full time to support my young family. I taught art in local schools and operated a commercial design company.
In 1992, after the last child went off to college, my new husband and I built a cabin on isolated Horse Island and moved there. At the island I painted without distraction. This was a period of intense artistic development for me.
I now live and Juneau and at the age of over ‘three quarters of a century’ I still work daily at art and can’t imagine doing anything else. Being part of an extended family of Alaska commercial fishermen, I am still, almost daily, involved in fishing in one way or another. This, and my faith in God, keeps me grounded. Sustenance does not come from the grocery store.
The faint smell of oil paint and turps on a chill Alaska breeze, in moments I lose myself to the sound of the sea and seabirds, the salt smell of the ocean. Hue and shadow, pallet knife and brush, all working together, I am focused. Every care recedes and I feel like me again.
In the early 1990’s, at our remote homestead on Horse Island, I painted in isolation without judgement except perhaps for some ideal in my subconscious. I feel extremely fortunate to have had this time alone. This independence was deliciously enjoyable and deeply personal. Lonely but never alone.
The making of this little plein air painting spanned several years and countless evenings watching the sun set over the Chilkat Range. The Mendenhall Glacier is northward.
Shown here partially completed, I will miss it more than most. Birthed as seen above on a glowing evening c. 2005, one “alla prima” perfect painting session along North Douglas Highway.
When a painting goes well my mind is both completely empty and completely focused. I call it being in the Zone. It is a wonderful feeling.
And as will happen to the plein air painter, daylight wains, the weather turns bad, and the partly completed painting is stored in a cardboard box with others. Years later, perhaps by sheer entropy, the partially completed painting emerged from the clutter and landed on the big easel in my studio where I studied it for weeks. August, 2018, I returned to the original location several times to completion.
Painting for me is a contemplation.
Each stroke carefully considered, there is no hurry. Color on canvas. I’m the brush holder.
Along North Douglas Highway. Chilkat range seen in the distance to the west, maybe 50 miles. In the photo I am facing north, the Mendenhall Glacier in the distance, perhaps a dozen miles.
To me the individual brush stroke has integrity and is an element in itself. I paint alla prima (wet on wet) with very little reworking. That is not to say I work quickly. Each brush stroke is considered.
Vision that exists only perhaps in my subconscious, my goal is not to reproduce a scene in detail, as a photograph, rather to capture the convergence of a moment in time, to communicate an essence, to bring the viewer’s own memory and imagination in to play. In this way, in each of my paintings, if I have done my job, there is much more than meets the eye.
Painting outdoors, directly from the scene (en plein air) has its hazards. Over the years I have worried about bears (bears also love sunsets!) and I was once almost trampled by a group of deer. I was once stalked by a two-legged animal, a human weirdo! A good painting dog is a necessary companion.
I have had more than one painting dog over the years, including the beloved Bernese Mountain Dog, Shiloh.
Racing the Sunset. The view of Auke Bay Harbor, our home port, from the “old” De Hart’s, before the harbor revisions and expansions of recent years. Our “daily transportation” was a small skiff. In winter, it was always a race to do our shopping, and get back to the island by dark.